Tossing the ultimate pizzaAh, to be in Italy in the summertime! What could be finer than bumping through sun-drenched hilltop villages in a battered old Fiat with a hamper of gorgonzola, parma and Chianti in the back? Not much. But, sadly, vacations come but once a year.
For a slice of la dolce vita in Seoul in the here and now, the place to be is an Italian restaurant (or, alternately, check out the Italian Festival, featuring cooking classes from Tuesday to June 13 at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, and an Italian film showcase at Dongsoong Art Center in Daehangno from June 24 to 30).
Establishments serving decent renditions of Italy’s most famed culinary export ― pasta ― are, today, commonplace in Seoul. However, those serving the nation’s number two specialty ― pizza ― are not. Why?
To answer this, let’s look at the history, and the route that food exports take to Korea. Although something approaching a pizza ― a flat, focaccia cake ― can be traced back to the Romans, the first evidence of a recognizably modern pizza ― a dough base with tomato and mozzarella, topped with olives and anchovies ― can be found in a book published in Naples in 1858.
This kind of dish was so appetizing that one of the Bourbon kings, Ferdinand I, apparently used to disguise himself as a commoner to partake. Then, as now, pizza was a street food, a meal for the average man. But despite a fine cuisine, 19th century southern Italy was ravaged by inequality, poverty and famine, pushing many Neapolitans and Sicilians to emigrate to the United States.
It was in New York in either 1895 or 1905 (sources disagree) that a Neapolitan opened the first overseas pizzeria. Americans subsequently made pizzas in their own image, using their own ingredients. And they used Yankee business savvy to market them. By the 1960s, pizzerias were all over the world. But oddly, it was not until the 1970s that pizzas finally achieved popularity in northern Italy.
It was in their American guise that pizzas first appeared in Korea, via franchise pizzerias. Pizzas in these eateries boast cardboard crusts and are covered with a broad (and often bizarre) range of ingredients ― potatoes, jalapeno peppers, pineapple chunks and sweet corn. Such a pizza can end up looking (and tasting) like a dog’s dinner.
Not so the Italian originals. The majority of pizzas featured in the modern bible of Italian cuisine, “Culinaria Italy,” feature no more than five toppings. The key is a simple but judicious mix of flavors, and that is what the classic recipes ― pizza Napoletana, pizza Margherita, pizza prosciutto ― deliver. Less, indeed, is more.
While American and American-style franchises dominate the Seoul market, there are now a few authentic Italian style pizzerias. In 1997, the first dedicated Italian-style pizzeria, Di Matteos, opened for business in Daehangno, complete with Neopolitan pizzaoli (pizza makers). That pioneering establishment has since been joined by a number of competitors. (Top-notch Italian pizzaoli have reportedly been retained to produce pizzas for Korea’s most notorious gourmet, the Dear Leader.)
What makes a good pizzeria? Firstly, a wood oven. Only this can guarantee the appropriate temperature (about 400 degree centigrade, or 750 degrees Fahrenheit). Secondly, fine ingredients. Which means, here in Korea, imported ingredients. Thirdly, a pizzaolo who knows his stuff. And finally, appropriate refreshment. Although some sip wine with pizza, the proper match is the working man’s beverage ― beer.
Below, we review what may be the finest wood-oven pizzerias on the peninsula. Last year, the Italian government announced that, considering its cuisine represents a significant part of the national image, it would launch a worldwide program to certify restaurants that are authentically Italian. Should this program ever make its way to Korea, we humbly suggest these establishments be considered for honors.
Nearest subway: Itaewon, line No. 6
Hours: noon-3 p.m.; 5:30 to 10:30 on weekdays
and until 12:30 a.m. on weekends
Telephone: (02) 793-6144
Set in a converted lounge bar, La Tavola (“The Table”) is large and spacious, although it often gets crowded. There is certainly a touch of style here with the copper-plated bar, modern art and globular light bulbs, yet it is pleasantly informal.
Pizzaola B.W. Park says, “The secret to a good pizza is good ingredients,” but credits manager Antonio Patela ― he being the Italian chap with the flowing Hugh Grant locks ― with his very obvious skill at the oven.
We ordered a Napoletana (tomato, mozzarella, anchovies and capers; 15,000 won) and a principessa (mozarella, cream and raw ham; 20,000 won).
La Tavola’s pizzas are all classic recipes, and are notable for their generous toppings. They are served, ready-cut, on wooden platters. The dough is light and bubbled.
It is difficult to decide a winner here. The anchovies and capers on the classic Napoletana are terrific, but the raw ham and cream of the principessa are equally commendable. There are also a wide range of pastas; the pazerottini with porcini mushrooms (15,000 won) is fresh and substantial.
To drink, that lively Italian lager, Peroni, is available. And for the gents in the audience, perhaps we should add that Antonio has some of the prettiest waitresses in Itaewon working in the evenings. Well, he is Italian.
Verdict: Superb stuff at reasonable prices. This is Andrew’s personal favorite.
Nearest subway: None in area
Parking: Valet parking
Hours: 12:30-2:30 p.m., 6:30-9:30 p.m. daily
Telephone: (02) 516-8589
Pasa Parolo (“Passport”) offers white tablecloths, shining cutlery even belle epoque glass lamps ― as such, it is a popular haunt of the fashionistas who inhabit Cheongdam-dong.
But while it may look more like a French restaurant than a pizzeria, rest assured it is the real deal. No bread basket ― you get a slice of oven-baked focaccia as soon as you are seated.
There are 25 pizzas (including four calzones, or folded pizzas), all made before your eyes by Corrado Argiolas (his brother, Ignacio, is the chef), from Sardinia.
We tried the calzone vulcano (tomato, mozzarella, ham, bacon and mushrooms; 21,000 won) and quattro formaggi (mozzarella, gorgonzola, emmental and brie; 23,000).
The calzone is huge, with the dough nicely bubbled, although the ham was syrupy sweet. The quattro formaggi is a real rarity in Seoul, a dish with strong tasting cheeses and plenty of ‘em. Recommended. The pizzas are thin and light in both cases.
Nonpizza dishes? Gnocchi (20,000 won) is disappointing. But the minestrone (12,000 won) is a satisfying, thick, rural soup, and the bean salad (10,000 won) is equally pleasing.
To drink, the Stella Artois ― a zesty and well-hopped golden lager from Belgium ― is the business. And for dessert the pancetta (milk pudding) and chocolate mousse (each 6,000 won) are heavenly.
Verdict: Dishes as tasty as the setting is stylish; Jinny’s favorite pizzeria.
Some English spoken; Italian menu
Nearest subway: Hyehwa, line No. 4, exit 2
Hours: noon to 10 p.m. daily
Telephone: (02) 747-4444
Opened in 1997 by the ex-comedian Lee Won-sung after a visit to Naples, Di Matteos (“Matthews,” named after the first pizzaolo here) is the godfather of Seoul’s wood-oven pizzerias.
Its large open-plan design, tiled floor and white walls impart a vaguely Mediterranean feel. It has recently expanded upstairs with a floor reserved exclusively for couples, and a restaurant section that is reservations only.
Pizza prices start at 13,000 won ($11). We sampled a diavolo (tomato, fresh mozzarella and spiced salami; 27,000 won) and a contadini (fresh mozzarella, proscuitto, rucola, padana, olive oil, parmesan and basil; 33,000 won).
The salami in the former, spiced with black peppercorns, was outstanding. But we preferred the latter overall. The ham, shavings of cheese and rucola leaves were a superb combination.
The pizzas here are thick, dry and doughy at the edge, and thin and wet (from the fresh mozzarella) in the center. They have an annoying tendency to fall apart when you cut into them, though.
Are these authentic pizzas? “Of course!” says pizzaolo Rafael Monaco, who being a native Neopolitan, should know.
The range of nonpizza dishes is limited, but the most disappointing absence is a quality beer. Local lagers are the sole brews.
Verdict: Still going strong.
No English spoken; Italian menu
Subway: Cheongdam, line No. 7, exit 9
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Sunday
Telephone: (02) 549-9894
Although it is named after a beautiful mountain, Bellamonte is actually set in a basement. Inside are dark floors, whitewashed walls and, adding a Bacchanalian touch, clay carvings of Roman gods, appropriately bearded and dressed in grapes. It is light and informal for the district.
The wood oven is carefully tended by imported Italian pizzaolo Giuseppe Barco. There is a very wide range of both pizzas and nonpizza items.
Among the latter, we choose pancetta (18,000 won) and acciughe e capera (25,000 won). The first is tomato, mozzarella, bacon and ham. The bacon, in particular, is outstanding, arriving in large, pink, glistening strips.
The latter is more of a challenging, adults-only taste ― heavy on well-salted anchovies and olives. The pizzas are on fine bases, crisped at the edge, softer and doughier in the centers.
To drink, a fruity Belgian brown ale, Leffe Brun fits nicely.
I should add that the gnocchi burro e salvia (11,000 won) is the best we have had in Seoul: butter, bacon and lumps of pasta, and at this price, excellent value. The salad (6,000 won) is average.
But the pudding (7,000 won), a simple mound of sweet cream cheese drizzled with berry coulis, is excellent.
Verdict: Simple and commendable; rural and authentic.
by Andrew and Jinny Salmon